The nurturing power of ritual and the importance of supportive love have not been widely explored in modern poetry. I am not sure if all poetry is about loss, but most poetry is about loss. The poems below are far from cheerful. And yet I find them soothing. They connect us with the timeless.
“It’s better to light one candle than curse the darkness” is one of the best proverbs ever created by humanity. Whether it originated in
Do we need to believe in a particular religion for a ritual (any ritual) to perform a psychological function? I don’t think so. We can enjoy the beauty of it and the connection with others and with the past.
Here is what Glenn Kurtz writes about the tradition of lighting the yahrzeit candle:
The tradition of lighting a candle for the dead is probably as old as candles. It is so deeply ingrained a symbol, it hardly seems symbolic at all. The light pushes back the darkness; what was lost in obscurity returns to view. In the Jewish tradition, the yahrtzeit (literally, time of year) candle is supposed to represent the soul, and by lighting it we temporarily rekindle the dead. By remembering, we reanimate—this consolation, this illusion, lies at the heart of almost every commemoration of the people we have lost. He is dead, we acknowledge, but he lives on in us. We honor his memory, we believe, and in doing so rescue him from darkness and obscurity. The gravity and fragility of the commemorative candle must derive from this belief. Performing this ritual saves the dead from a fate even sadder (to the living) than death: being forgotten. Only our remembrance preserves them from this death after death.
(Southwest Review, Volume 95, Number 1)
There is a lovely fragility about candle flame. It wavers in a draft, but struggles to stay upright. It’s easy to blow out. It needs protection. The light illuminates, but also causes things to cast strange shadows, creating a pleasant mystery. Our faces look more attractive in candlelight’s forgiving softness.
The point is: we don’t want to see all the details. Candlelight is like poetry: you leave things out. You let them remain in darkness. Only a small, intimate circle is visible.
Even though we have electric light, we haven’t given up candles and I don’t think we ever will. The candle flame is beautiful. And ahead of all other symbolism, it’s like human life.
Dan Bellm’s poem is not as perfect in its craft, but its interesting content makes up for it. As I see it, blowing out the rough-burning candle but letting the calm one burn on signifies the choice of a nurturing love over a turbulent love life (or a turbulent life in general). There comes a time when we stop thinking “How boring” when we encounter a truly good person rather than a charismatic narcissist. A time when we want a quiet life rather than disruptive drama. The choice of the candle that’s “placid as prayer,” patient and steadfast, symbolizes this choice.
Good writing is like a finely woven fabric. It consists of the interweave of the limitless, the eternal, with tangible reality -- both parts have to be there. The limiting factors (story, structure) need to be expanded by the limitless (music, the mental plane, imagery; this is one of my greatest discoveries: imagery is limitless).
In both poems, the candles are part of a ritual, a connection with a transcendent plane we don’t understand, yet whose presence nurtures us. Perhaps it’s enough that for a moment we step out of the daily tasks into the timeless – as again we light the candles, watching the faint, warm light.